Don’t just take photographs – make them!

This content is 17 years old. I don't routinely update old blog posts as they are only intended to represent a view at a particular point in time. Please be warned that the information here may be out of date.

For a long time now, I’ve been intending to start a photography blog, but as made the move to a digital workflow, my photography is inevitably becoming more technology-focused and I’ve decided to post the occasional photographic item here (those who are interested in just the photographic items can point their browser/feed reader to the Digital Photography tag).

Mark Wilson and Charlie Waite in 2003Four years ago, I got to meet one of my photography heros – Charlie Waite – who gave a very interesting presentation at the Talking Pictures ’03 event in London. Last night, I found my notes from that talk and whilst they are far from clear now (so I’ve missed out whole chunks that I no longer understand completely), I thought it might be worthwhile posting them here.

Charlie Waite makes the distinction between taking photographs and making photographs – to make a photograph, it is necessary to “place oneself in the midst of the photographic experience”

When I used to take photos on film, I used to think myself lucky if I got 3-5 images that were good enough to keep from a roll of film. Of course, a professional’s idea of “good enough to keep” would be different to mine (my photos consist of family snapshots, holiday memories and the odd landscape – if I made photographic images for a living then my standards would need to be much higher). It is said that the renowned American photographer Ansel Adams used to reckon on 12 good photographs a year. Indeed, Charlie Waite compared a professional photographer to a top chef who thinks that nothing is ever perfect. The chef’s guests love the meal but he thinks the beans are not quite al dente!

So what makes a good image?

Firstly, being photogenic is nothing to do with good looks – it’s about “letting you in” to the the subject. Think about a travel photographer’s image of a wizened old man – he is rarely attractive in terms of beauty and yet there is something interesting about his face, his expression, or the situation. Similarly for landscapes, industrial scenes can make great images, although they would rarely be referred to as attractive.

Most people have the artistic view that is required to take good pictures. If something is less than ideal, think about compromises. What if it was composed differently? Perhaps change the point of view? (Charlie Waite recommends using a ladder to look over the foreground and reveal more focal planes) Or try cropping the image (preferably in-camera, not in Photoshop afterwards).

Lighting can be used to create an atmosphere – for example, using side lighting instead on one main light. Personally, I love the warm glow on the landscape from a low sunlight at the end of the day – particularly combined with dark clouds after a rainstorm!

To some extent, the camera used is not what makes a great photo (a good photographer will think about a number of compositional elements whether they use an expensive medium-format camera or a mobile phone) but it can make a huge difference. Charlie Waite described the process as “making a sacred image that you are proud of” and the choice of film/filter/camera can make a huge difference. As a photographer, the subjective and creative endeavour is all yours – you are the lighting director, the producer, responsible for props, etc. and it’s your role to make it all work.

Charlie Waite summed up his talk by commenting that “landscapes are about engaging with the natural world through photography” and his talk certainly opened my eyes to a new perspective on making photographs.

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